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One month has passed since the publication of the impatience of the long expected document, “Credible Perspective of Enlargement for the Western Balkans”. This is not an enlargement strategy, as much as the EU’s short and medium-term plan for our region. (However, as the enlargement in any other part of Europe is not certain, it is also the closest to an enlargement strategy that exists.) To its preparation and eventual publication, Brussels was motivated by the fact that six candidates and potential candidates for membership were seen as “backsliding”, but also the possibility that more countries (Serbia above all) will slip away from its zone of influence. From the document we read that the EU institutions realized that the geopolitical game is in progress; that the European project is no longer “the only game in town”, and that the time in which it is possible to make (democratic) transformation and (economic) convergence of the region to a level good enough for membership is almost gone. Yet, because the EU is a union of 28 states; decision-makers; and electorates to whom they are accountable, nothing is, and will be certain; as the text itself has been harmonized until the last moment, after the first version whose language (say those who read it) was even more ambitious. But the real significance of this document lies in the fact that Brussels has dealt with the future and prospects of the region, firmly binding it to itself (“part of Europe”), and finally, for the first time introducing concrete dates.

To begin, the transformation of the Balkans is in the direct interest of the EU; and the “credible extension perspective” is its main trigger. It is understood as part of a wider process of “strengthening” (we understand it as stabilization) of the Union by 2025. Here comes the first limitation: the EU “will not become bigger before it becomes stronger”, time is needed to come up with some of the initiatives that the European Commission will propose during the year (in accordance with the Road Map). Most importantly, the document then says that “With strong political will, the delivery of real and sustained reforms, and definitive solutions to disputes with neighbors” Montenegro and Serbia may be ready for membership in 2025. Immediately afterwards – no doubt, following the intervention of a number of EU member states involved in the drafting process – a new limitation goes: “this perspective is extremely ambitious.” Two paragraphs later, perspective is opened to countries in the second echelon, potential candidates. The way Kosovo’s aspirations are treated is one of the biggest weaknesses of the document (about this later).

The order of priorities is clear. Rule of law comes first; for the first time, term “state capture” was used to bring the reality of the countries of the region closer. All the things that the civil society and the expert public have been insisting on for years are in the document; “strong entanglement of public and private interests”, “a sentiment of impunity and inequality”; “extensive political interference and control of media”. The only viable solution is in the “visibly empowered and independent judiciary”. In second place, it is expected that none of the “Western Balkans six” economies can be considered market-based, which requires structural reforms. Thirdly, bilateral disputes were addressed, but  how: no more arbitrage, for which experts say that it was offered as an option in the first version of the document. The new escalation in the dispute between Slovenia and Croatia over the Bay of Piran caused many in European capitals to simply say “we are not crazy” to import new (equally complex) disputes. So: the borders are resolved (and therefore Kosovo’s status); an acceptable name for Macedonia; and somewhere along the way, Bosnia and Herzegovina as a functioning state (which, paradoxically, can turn out to be the biggest challenge). To avoid any dilemma, the authors of the document in the last introductory paragraph say: “EU accession is a choice” (therefore, no one is asking for this); while social consensus, support coming from the highest levels of decision-making and unambiguity in treatment must exist; everything we have known and felt intimately for years.

The elaboration of these priority areas does not bring something spectacularly new. Mentioned were all regional initiatives “flanking” European integration. Thus Commission tried to establish the connection between some of them – Berlin Process, whose purpose may now not be so clear – and then CEFTA, the Regional Cooperation Council and the criminal tribunals (and related mechanisms). The initiative for a common economic area was also mentioned, but more in the sense of a promising plan; from which it can be concluded that in Brussels they realized that the resistance is too big. Each of these is important in a certain dimension of the process, and how will the Member States understand it, we shall see.

What is most concrete follows: what are the conditions that candidates must fulfill in the short term. As an “indicative scenario of the best case” (it’s hard to imagine a phrase with more disclaimers!), It is shown that (if there are no new problems) the accession of Montenegro and Serbia could take place by 2025. Firstly, there is an “even stronger focus” on meeting the preconditions in the field of the rule of law, which will supposedly be even more rigorously assessed through the new instruments and mechanisms that we will mention. Especially for Serbia, under Chapter 35, it is expected that the “comprehensive agreement on normalization” will be “urgently” concluded. The Commission would then prepare a document to assess the effects of enlargement on some of the key Union policies, in the areas of agriculture, cohesion and the budget. Special attention, again expected, would be devoted to transitional provisions concerning the free movement of workers (some kind of restriction is expected). A final intergovernmental conference would follow, at which all members would agree to bring the negotiations to an end. After the ratification of the accession treaty in the manner foreseen by each of the members, Montenegro – or Serbia – will become a part of the EU.

Not less important is the section in which new solutions are being set up to strengthen the European perspective. The real and long-awaited step forward is the decision to include representatives of candidates in the work of the EU institutions wherever necessary and possible. First the ministerial summits, and then the technical committees and working groups of the Commission. With this, the “Western Balkans six” are given a seat at the table where everything is decided. Then, efforts will be made to intensify staff exchanges at different levels of government with Member States. More input in external, security and defense policy is expected; which will accompany the harmonization with the EU’s foreign policy positions. (Another “soft” condition for Serbia, therefore.)

Next come the six “flagship” initiatives (of the Commission) intended for Western Balkans, which we assume will be in due course elaborated in additional documents. In the area of ​​the rule of law, it is proposed to establish advisory missions for the entire Western Balkans; and to monitor cases of “high” corruption and organized crime. Moving on to “security and migration” – which the Commission will treat in due course with a special initiative – the emphasis is on the role of specialized EU agencies and their mutual cooperation. It is proposed to continue the regime of sending officers and experts to the borders of the Western Balkan countries, obviously considered successful. In the domain of the economy, the Western Balkans Investment Framework is of particular importance, within which the assistance provided by other international financial institutions should be coordinated. The economic drivers, in the vision of the Commission, would be less public sectors, and more “robust” private, in which special assistance would be provided to start-ups through technology transfers. Connecting with the EU, both infra-structurally and virtually, will be the theme of the “Connect Europe” initiative, in particular, the “Energy Union with the Western Balkans”. The EU will continue to support the construction of transport corridors in various ways. A mechanism by which the EU will address the need to establish good neighborly relations already exists – the Regional Office for Youth Co-operation (RYCO), whose work will be expanded.

Finally, it is important that annexes in which – to avoid confusion and later interpretations – are precisely defined in practice by new mechanisms, from observation and advisory missions to support civil society. This is especially important, both from the point of view of the predictability of the whole process, as well as those who follow it from the side: the EU has “opened up space” in a way that is more direct than any previous enlargement.

We have already pointed out that one of the biggest weaknesses of the document is the way in which Kosovo is treated. That not everyone will be satisfied, it became clear in the days ahead of the publication: Spain acted as if any country whose sovereignty was threatened might expect. Words that Kosovo can “advance on its European path once objective circumstances allow” mean very little to those who believe in eventual membership. This means – again, without much input into and understanding the context of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina – that all the pressure has been transferred to Serbia. It is the one who has the prospect of integration (one leader whose authority is unquestioned) that must give something in return. That something is normalization (not recognition, recognition is not really important at all). By this, Kosovo was put in a unique situation: in a absolute sense, due to delays in the consolidation of its statehood and changes that have occurred in international relations, its position weakens; but in relation to Serbia and thanks to the unwillingness of key actors (the USA and Germany) to accept solutions other than expected (i.e. dreaded partition and exchange of territories), it has been strengthened. The only card Serbia can play is its acceptance of the “seat (in the) UN”; which, if nothing changes, it is giving away “cheaply” (again, in the absolute sense). All this, however, is beyond the content of the document we have analyzed and will probably be written on that “blank paper” Commissioner Hahn was talking about.

Whether Russia would accept Kosovo in the UN, even if Serbia does, has not been given much thought. Nevertheless, Moscow reserves the possibility for itself to continue to complicate the enlargement process unnerving the West further, while seeking concessions on matters more important (Crimea). At the same time, even if agreement is reached in 2019, another five to six years remain during which Serbia will have to “work” on normalization, which should, at the time of its accession, be “in the advanced phase”. Again, such a provision does not exist when the other party is in question.

After careful reading of the document, we conclude that the EU went as far as it could. We know that the member’s position on the issue of the right moment for enlargement is different. The limitations, language used in potential are therefore not surprising. It is a pity, in fact, that such a document EU could not have produced five years ago and even more so that we ourselves were not ready for that. It is clear that objective circumstances, and above all, the dynamics of the enlargement process did not allow this. Time which may prove to be valuable is lost; because the greatest disturbance to the prospect of enlargement are not third, foreign forces, but consolidated, hybrid regimes that in various ways bring into question modern democracy. These practices are paid due attention in the text; for the first time after a long time, it seems, Brussels did not “close its eyes” to the problem. If so, then the dismissal of the so-called “stabilocracy” in the medium and long term, as the final condition for membership, might represent the most important achievement of the document; because the resistance or toughness of one society to the most diverse challenges is closely related to the character of its regime.

First published in Novi magazin no. 359, 15 March 2018

This post is also available in SRP.

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